Agam's Gecko
Saturday, December 27, 2008

few observations from my brief time this week in Jakarta.

But first, a belated Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukha, Selamat Idul Adha, Kool Kwanzaa (and any other of the season's best wishes which I may be forgetting) to all. One thing about both Indonesia and Thailand -- the vast majorities of which are Muslims and Buddhists respectively -- is that their peoples are in no way averse to recognising Christmas. Most folks here and there would find it incomprehensible that in the increasingly politically correct western societies, the very mention of the major Christian holiday by its name could be seen as exclusionary.

If one were to propose a similar marginalizing the identification of Wisakha Bucha to a Thai, or of Idul Fitri to an Indonesian because somebody of a different religion might feel "offended," they would look at you like you were nuts. Plenty of Indonesian Muslims were happily wishing me "Selamat Hari Natal" or "Merry Christmas" a few days ago, obviously happy to be expressing inclusiveness and without any hint of being excluded or offended about it. My modest little hotel in Menteng even had a twinkling Christmas tree in the lobby, and the chances are good that not even a single Christian was among the guests. The "West" could learn something here, I think.

Christmas Eve brought with it a little nervousness this year, because three of the Bali bombers were recently executed for their crimes of 2002 which killed over 200 people. Television coverage of services across the archipelago showed heavily armed security forces in place at many churches, along with bag-checks, metal detectors, etc. As important to the safety of the congregations were the locally organised Muslim civil groups who came out in a highly visible display of inter-confessional solidarity, extending goodwill to their Christian neighbours and providing an atmosphere of safety in the streets for them on Malam Natal (the night before Christmas). There were no incidents, and the holy days passed peacefully. That's the Indonesia I love.

Of course it's not all roses for Christians, and there remain problems that need resolving. On Christmas Eve afternoon I walked past the big Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, which is the place for any kind of protest or demo in recent years. A lot of people wearing white clothing and white bandanas were there that day, holding banners proclaiming that "We are legitimate Indonesian citizens too" and "Refugees in our own country." Some others were outside the circle handing out leaflets about their cause, which included photos of their current predicament. They are Christian seminary students who had been violently driven out of their facility by fundamentalist Islamist thugs on July 27 this year.

Since then they've been living in a refugee encampment elsewhere in the city. For 22 years, the seminary had co-existed in peace with their neighbours, but the intolerant political Islamist fringe were offended by their presence. City officials had promised to provide the students (who come from all over Indonesia) with a new location, but that promise has yet to be fulfilled. Christmas Eve seems like a good time to remind them that the theological seminary continues to exist in primitive conditions five months later, in a refugee camp which very much resembles the tsunami refugee camps of Aceh a few years ago.

By the way, yesterday was the fourth anniversary of that massive disaster. I still give thanks that, miraculously, my beloved Tapaktuan was spared destruction. For several weeks into 2005, I had no idea if it was even still there. I've been back several times since.

I walked on from the demo to find an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to take me back to the hotel, and as we zoomed through the Menteng district (the area where Barack Obama lived and went to school), a very sweet sound was heard. Barack has famously written, in one of his two autobiographies, that the sunset call to prayer at mosques is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. That may be true if the reciter is talented (and if the amplification isn't pushing the capabilities of tinny speakers beyond their endurance). If he (and it is always a he, of course) isn't particulary talented, it can sound like nothing more than off-key whining.

But the sweet sound that afternoon was very different. A rich chorus of voices was pouring out of a church -- uplifting, magnificent and unencumbered due to the church's semi-open design. The sheer beauty of that sound said more to me about the promise of Indonesia than the over-amplified broadcasts from mosques five times a day. I wondered if Barack remembers hearing it too. I'm sure he must have.

The next US president is quite naturally a star in this country, where he spent a good part of his youth. Just before witnessing the seminary students' protest, I had gone into the newest and most modern bookstore in Jakarta, the just-opened Gramedia in the new Hotel Indonesia shopping centre. I noticed two hardcovers about him there, one of which was obviously being promoted with a prominent front window showing and displayed in three or four other locations throughout the large store. I had to chuckle -- it was the Jerome Corsi book, Obama Nation. Clearly the managers had not yet given it too close a look, even though the text on the back cover makes it clear that Corsi is, to put it mildly, not too enthusiastic about America's 44th president.

Finally, I spent much of those few days trying to satiate my appetite for that wonderful and varied Indonesian cuisine. I was not successful, and am presently going through withdrawal. Don't get me wrong -- I love Thai food too. But I wish I could have brought home one of those ketoprak street vendors I'm missing today. Oh, and another for crispy fried tempeh... and sate Madura, and....

Patience, Agam. You'll be back soon.


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